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Selecting a Kayak for Salmon Fishing | Guest Article

by The Addicts

November 19, 2014

When I first started salmon and steelhead fishing, I - like many new anglers, was bound to the bank...

kayak fishing salmonKayak fishing is one of the most exhilarating ways to fight a fish!

Written by Tyler Hicks - Guest Article

... For a time this was tolerable, but I found myself increasingly looking and longing to fish the next pool or tailout below. I was convinced that more, bigger, and brighter fish lay beyond the reach of my cast. More pragmatically, I desired to explore and fish in solitude. A boat was what I needed and a boat is what I could not afford.  Well to be more precise, I might have been able to afford a boat, but I lacked a vehicle that could tow a boat, and funds to outfit and register it. However, I did have two old kayaks gathering dust in the basement that easily fit on the roof rack of my car. I hastily outfit the kayaks with a rod holder and began floating tributaries in southwest Washington. The freedom was exhilarating, the fishing was great, and so began an obsession with kayak angling.

With daylight dwindling, rivers raging, and temperatures dropping winter isn’t exactly the time of year most folks are thinking about kayak fishing. However, winter is a great time to get a good deal on new and used kayaks. It is this time of year that 2015 models roll into kayak stores and they need to clear out the old merchandise and often offer discounts on older models. Additionally, folks are trying to make space in the garage and good deals on used kayaks can be found on Craigslist and other classifieds for the thrifty angler.

There are a multitude of kayaks on the market. Deciding which kayak is best for you will largely be dictated by the type of salmon/steelhead fishery you intend to target, your body size, physical ability, and to some degree personal taste. In the Northwest there are three basic kayak fisheries for salmon and steelhead which I broadly classify into three categories: the “plunking” kayak, the “A to B” kayak, and the “trolling” kayak.

First we should cover some basics.


PFD – Get one and wear it every time you sit in the kayak. Fighting a powerful salmon in a kayak is like nothing else but it is a more intimate experience with the water. You are more likely to end up in the drink in a kayak than in a powerboat or bank fishing so be prepared for it. There are number of pfds on the market specifically designed for kayak anglers that have ample pockets for stowing tackle, lures, and safety gear. Invest in a pfd that is comfortable to wear all day and it’ll soon become second nature. If you don’t want to wear one then don’t get in a kayak.

SOT vs SINK – There are two basic designs of kayak: the Sit-on-Top (SOT) and the Sit-inside Kayak (SINK). With a SOT kayak the angler essentially sits on the deck of the kayak with the enclosed hull providing flotation. Access into the deck is usually provided via hatches which allow for storage of gear and access for modifications to the deck such as adding a rod holder. The angler is fairly exposed to the environment and is offered little protection from wind, waves, and spray. Water drains through scupper holes in boat. As long as the hatches are water tight the boat will not sink even in flipped upside down in the water. In a SINK kayak the angler sits inside the hull of the boat itself. This affords better protection from waves, wind, and even rain. Depending on the model and manufacturer some SINK kayaks will have bulkheads and hatches to access storage areas but many are completely open inside making modification to the deck relatively easy. Unlike SOT kayaks SINK kayaks can sink if filled with water. Many SINK kayaks today are fitted with foam inserts at the bow and stern to keep some portion of the boat afloat in case of sinking. However, an angler who flips his boat in a SOT should be able to right the boat and get back in readily whereas this is much more difficult in a SINK kayak.

Length and Width – Kayaks vary greatly in length and width. For most salmon and steelhead situations a boat ranging from 9-14’ in length will suffice depending on the type of fishery you are targeting. In general shorter boats are going to be more maneuverable whereas longer boats will be faster and track better. A longer boat is going to offer room for more storage as well. The width of a kayak determines its stability, along with the keel design. In general the wider a boat is, the more stable and initially resistant to rolling over it will be. However, wider boats are generally slower as the boat has to plow through more water creating more resistance. Lastly, a wider boat will provide more deck space for the angler to store gear and outfit the boat with rod holders, fish finders, and other fishing tackle.

Propulsion – Not so long ago paddle powered kayaks were the only mass produced kayak on the market now there are many options.  Paddle powered kayaks are still the most numerically dominant and most cost effective kayaks on the market. There are even paddles developed specifically for anglers on the market. The paddle concept hasn’t changed much in the 4000 years since its inception by Arctic native peoples. Pedal powered kayaks have revolutionized the kayak angling industry freeing the angler’s hand from the paddle has opened up opportunities for salmon and steelhead fishing previously inaccessible to all but the most die-hard paddling anglers. In addition, the muscle group used during pedaling is much larger those used by paddle anglers allowing for longer days on the water and greater distances to be covered in the search for fish. There are currently two widely available pedal drives available on kayaks. Hobie kayak’s “Mirage” drive is a dual flipper design, very similar to a penguin’s, that slips through the hull and locks into a large scupper in the front of the cockpit. The Mirage drive is available on a variety of Hobie kayaks varying in length, width, and design. A drawback of the Mirage drive is its inability to go in reverse. Native Watercraft’s “Propel” drive is a propeller based pedal drive and the kayak angler can power the kayak in reverse simply by pedaling backwards. The Propel drive is available on two models each with varying lengths and designs. Finally, several kayak companies have developed battery powered prop kayaks and ingenuitive anglers have found numerous ways to mount trolling motors to their kayak as well.


The kayak plunking fishery on the lower Columbia River has become increasingly popular in the past few years. In this fishery a kayak is used to run plunking gear out to deeper water where salmon are running or to deploy salmon and steelhead plunking setups that would become tangled if cast from shore. The ideal plunking kayak will be a relatively short paddle kayak in the 9-10.5’ range. The short length and paddle propulsion will provide excellent maneuverability so that the angler can thread through plunking lines extending out from the beach. The hull design should be relatively flat on the bottom to allow for easy and stable access in and out of the kayak on the beach and the paddles can be used push off from the beach in order to self-launch. As most plunking locales require some walking a lightweight kayak, less than 50 lbs, that can easily be carried is key. A SINK kayak will allow the angler to avoid getting wet from wind and boat waves while running gear out from the beach but an SOT is a viable option as well. Many economic options exist for the plunking kayak angler. As testament to their potential a plunking kayak angler running a triple spin-n-glow setup just above me this past summer on the Columbia hauled in a steelhead double. Both fish were clipped. Talk about an easy limit!

kayak fishing


Salmon and steelhead are denizens of moving water. Moving water is a challenging environment to fish from a kayak in. However, a kayak can open up a world of opportunity for the bank angler. Many of the lower reaches of our coastal and tributary rivers have timid enough water to run in kayak and yet still offer substantial bank access for the kayak angler to pull out on and fish from. If you are an angler that is looking for a more private fishing experience then investing in an “A to B” kayak might be worthwhile. With the assistance of a shuttle a kayak angler can access miles of fishing grounds previously unreachable.

The “A to B” kayak needs to be a paddle kayak capable of handling varying water depths and speeds, maneuverable enough to handles class 2 rapids, have sufficient speed to get you through long sections of frog water, and enough storage space to carry a couple rods and of course your fish.  Look for a 9.5-11’ stable flat bottomed kayak that will make it easy to get in and out of the kayak easily as you will be doing so regularly as you stop to work pools and tailouts. Both SOT and SINK kayaks are suitable but a SOT will be easier to recover in the event that you flip although you are likely to stay a little drier in a SINK kayak. Avoid using a pedal powered kayak as the fin or prop drives jutting out below the kayak can easily be damaged by boulders in shallow rapids.


salmon fishing out of kayakTHE TROLLING KAYAK

The Pacific Northwest is home to many large rivers, bays, sounds, and of course is bounded by the Pacific Ocean. Hungry salmon and steelhead are available to the kayak angler in all of these environments. Venturing out onto the big water requires a kayak that can handle the waves, current, wind, and torment that are typical of our region’s waters. The most widely employed technique on these big waters is trolling and requires a kayak that has excellent tracking, speed, and stability. A trolling kayak should be 12-14’ length. SOT are best suited to this environment as taking a few waves over the bow is expected now and then especially if surf launching. Kayaks outfitted with rudders or drop-down skegs will help make trolling easier. Paddle kayaks offer an affordable and suitable trolling platform but pedal powered kayaks excel in this fishery. Pedal powered kayaks free the angler’s hand to continually adjust trolling depths, re-rig cut-plug herring, drink a beer, or give chase to a hot chinook dragging you on sleigh ride across the bay. If you are an angler who plans on covering a lot of water then a longer (13’+) more slender boat will get you to the fishing grounds faster and allow you to cover more water without tiring but will cost you some stability. If you plan on fishing protected bays, slower sections of the Columbia or Snake Rivers, or tidewaters then a shorter boat with greater width stability might make for a more comfortable day on the water. You may even opt outfit your kayak with an electric motor but just be sure to know your range and your paddling/pedaling capabilities before motoring too far from your launch. Unlike other kayaks, anglers should look for a kayak with a comfortable chair as you will be spending many hours with your butt in the seat and an uncomfortable chair can make for a long day on the water.


You should make the extra effort to demo a kayak before buying it. A kayak may look great in someone’s garage or in the showroom but it is not uncommon to get it out on the water and have it fall short of what you are looking for. Test the stability, speed, tracking, comfort, rudder controls, pedal drives (if applicable) and inspect hatches, to ensure they seal properly, and the hull for deep gouges and deformities from improper storage. For most plunking and A to B kayaks expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1100 for a suitable kayak. The cost will vary substantially between used and new kayaks and will also be influenced by the manufacturer and model. For most trolling kayaks expect to pay anywhere from $1000 to $3500 with paddling kayaks averaging about $500 to $700 less expensive than pedal powered models. There are many quality kayak brand names out there that are well established including: Ocean Kayak, Perception, Wilderness Systems, Hobie, Jackson, Old Town, and Native Watercraft have all developed kayaks specifically for the angler. However, there are numerous other brands that build perfectly capable and quality kayaks.

There are a limited number of regional kayak shops that cater specifically to or support kayak angling staff and will allow you to demo boats but they include and are worth a visit:

Kayak Shed, Hood River, OR T: (541) 386-4286, W:

Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center, Portland, OR T: (503) 233-0706, W:

Waxer’s Surf Shop, Coos Bay, OR T: (541) 266-9020 W:

Take your time in making a purchase. There are several regional kayak fishing Facebook groups in the Pacific Northwest and Northwest Kayak Anglers ( is an excellent resource for research and connecting with other kayak anglers in your area.

Kayak fishing is one of the fastest growing segments of the fishing industry - for good reason. It offers an affordable way for anglers to cover new water and bring home more fish for their family and friends.

Thanks to Tyler Hicks for this excellent article on selecting kayaks for salmon fishing!

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